The Mallee and the pastoral

Photographing the rural landscapes of  the Mallee  country  needs to be distinguished from the idyllic  pastoral tradition in Australian visual culture  that in the Heidelberg tradition   emphasised the tamed farmland with its  abundance of natural resources.  The  artists represent this  in the almost mandatory blue and gold palette.

This  form of pastoralism  refers to representations of a rural landscape during the European colonial settlement of the land, with its sheep grazing and cropping,   its  link to national identity,   the heroic,  white bush worker,   the taming of the landscape and progress.  This  white setter pastoralism,  systematically removed Indigenous people from the Australian landscape  recreated a white colonial landscape which was devoid of life prior to European (characterised as human) settlement. The painters in creating a harsh but yielding Australian landscape and populating it with Aussie Bushmen,  laid the foundations for contemporary Australia.

 This pastoralism  was  undercut in the 1960s by Drysdale’s stoic outback figures, Nolan’s anti-heroic bushrangers and convicts and doomed explorers, Tucker’s eroded and metaphysical antipodean heads,  and Boyd’s haunted symbolic imagery. However, this  tradition was devoid  of  the Indigenous connection to land and  to the pre-existing Indigenous landscape,  whilst  the violent and traumatic process of colonisation and nation  building was removed.
 The pastoral  today  is a romantic one that refers to urban dwellers leaving the industrial city, retreating to the rural landscape in the wine regions and then returning to the city. It a kind of weekend retreat  in a cottage with walking in the full force of the elements and good pub food and wine in  which the person is refreshed  and renewed and so more able to cope with the tensions of  living in the industrial city.This version of  the pastoral, which  refers  back  to Virgil’s ‘Georgics’, and is the heart of European Classical education especially in Britain and German is a celebratory one.  It has a tendency to  idealise the countryside and adopt a  nostalgic look back at the past.

This is a mythical past when life, though tough, was rooted in the security of the seasons and community, the land was fertile, and the small towns were prosperous.  This mythical past is then set against the difficulties and uncertainties of the present and the confusions of the future with the decline of the family farm and the emergence of climate change.

It is hard to see the mallee in South Australia in terms of this kind of pastoral. We  are a long way from Henry David Thoreau and his simple life close to nature at Walden Pond,  which he  counterposed to the tensions of urban civilization, even if the ethos of country mindedness–the Australian version  of agrarianism—assumes that the rural way of life is a morally better life. The Mallee is no Arcadia and the pastoral romantic (the classic British genre) with  its   journey from the city  to Arcadia and back to the city renewed’  does work for the  Australian mallee  landscape and its peoples. 

This is not to deny the central tenet of agrarianism—the belief that agriculture and those who work in it are fundamentally important to society. It is to question some of the other  beliefs associated  with agrarianism, namely:  yeomanry, the family farm,  the goodness of farm life, and independent, self-reliant farmers are the backbone of democracy.

It is  to also suggest that it is engage with the white settler’s  pastoral enterprise of clearing land and raising sheep and growing crops – and the inheritance of ‘paddocks  that increasingly saline and eroded. The  Australia pastoral is about work, not leisure, and this makes it very distinctive from  the wilderness literature of north America, not withstanding the Tasmanian experience of  Lake Pedder (1970s) and the Franklin (1980s).

The wheat belt of the Mallee is a region of radical disappearance.  The light, bright yellow region is where in the space of less than one hundred years, an area the  has been cleared of its native flora and fauna. The story in summary— it’s gone. The photos of the  Mallee wheatbelt are  haunted with this loss, even though remnants of native bush do remain on the ground on a small scale. The history of the region  is one that  has made Indigenous people and the trauma of colonisation invisible within this landscape and thus within history, allowing white Australia as the descendants of the colonisers and settlers to construct a narrative in which they are both the primary inhabitants and owners of the Australian landscape.

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